“Guns Don’t Kill People; People Do.”

1. Because my understanding of political philosophy is at best inchoate, I am reluctant to allow myself to use this blog as a vehicle for the expression of my political beliefs, themselves even more inchoate. From time to time, however, I find myself tempted to succumb to the temptation of taking notice when a logical or philosophical doctrine, related in some significant way to this blog’s neo-Aristotelian perspective, is immediately pertinent to an issue of the day. And I will have the intellectual courage, if I may so describe it, to succumb to the temptation when, though only when, what I have to say borders on the obvious.

2. To bring in the issue of the day: one still hears repeated, and often and as if self-evident, the staple assertion that “Guns don’t kill people; people do.” One’s first reaction may well be, “well, yes, but…,” immediately followed by a “But, no, well….” Or vice versa.

3. To bring in the pertinent logical doctrine: I am a lover of logic, particularly elementary logic. This is undoubtedly chiefly because my command of advanced logic is, well, very easily exaggerated, but it is also because elementary logic is so obviously and pervasively useful in the life of the mind. Thus, in the case at hand, the assertion that “guns don’t kill people; people do,” elementary logic immediately reminds us that we are presented therein with a conjunction of two propositions, the third of the following four:

Guns kill people and people kill people.

Guns kill people and people do not kill people.

Guns do not kill people and people kill people.

Guns do not kill people and people do not kill people.

That there are the four logical possibilities, the various possible expansions of the two propositions set aside, disposes immediately with any thought one might have that “guns don’t kill people; people do” is self-evident and so not in need of discussion.

3. To bring in the pertinent philosophical doctrine: this morning I found myself reading Father Thomas Gilby’s “Appendix 13: Biblical Inspiration,” in the first volume of the Blackfriar’s edition of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas.* Therein offering a brief summary of Thomas’s doctrine of causality and having just presented the distinction between the primary or “universal first cause,” i.e., God, and the other, “secondary,” causes, Gilby goes on to say (Section 7 (p. 145))”

Secondary causes are of two kinds, principal causes and instrumental causes. Principal secondary causes act in virtue of their active forms, natural powers, and settled abilities, which, though deriving from the first cause, are their own, so that the effect they produce is proportionate to the sort of thing they are: a man is the principal secondary cause of his thinking and loving. Instrumental secondary causes act in virtue of a causality passing through them from a higher principal cause, and produce an effect of an order higher than their own proper power: a man is the instrumental secondary cause of a miracle.

Gilby goes on to say (Ibid.):

Now although the purpose of the effect matches, assimilatur, the intention of the principal, not of the instrument, the effect itself as a whole is attributed to them both.

4. I leave it to the reader as an exercise to apply the doctrine of principal and instrumental secondary causes to the issue at hand.

* Thomas Gilby, O. P., “Appendix 13: Biblical Inspiration,” in Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, Thomas Gilby, O. P. et al, editors and translators (60 vols. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, and New York: McGraw–Hill, 1964–730), Volume I, pp. 142-146.


By the way, I was fortunate enough to have twice met Thomas Gilby ca. 1970, over dinner, as he was a close friend of Thomas O’Brien, a central collaborator with him in the editing of the Summa; O’Brien was my professor in several courses on Aquinas and the very understanding director of my M.A. thesis. I bring all this up because I want to record here Gilby’s wonderful opinion, and I quote it exactly, that “When God created the universe, he did it in a great shout of laughter.”

About Rchard E. Hennessey

See above, "About the Author/Editor."
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